SIGnificant improvementS

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.

California received a double dose of good news this week about the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that a $63 million check is in the mail to cover the second-year funding for schools awarded SIG grants in round two. And, perhaps more promising, a new study found that student test scores in SIG schools showed significant improvement in the first year.

Schools that implemented SIG-funded reforms increased their API scores by an additional 34 points beyond what would have been expected if they hadn’t received the funding and implemented a schoolwide reform. That amounts to a 23 percent jump toward closing the gap between their API scores and the state’s goal of 800 points, according to the study, “School turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 stimulus.”

“The results were striking; it was more than we would expect to see at this point,” said Stanford University education professor Edward Haertel, who provided feedback on an early draft of the study.

Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report).  Click to enlarge.
Small API differences separated some SIG and non-SIG schools. (Source: School Turnaround report). Click to enlarge.

The author, University of Virginia researcher Thomas Dee, analyzed achievement in 82 of California’s 89 schools that received grants in the first SIG cohort. He eliminated those that chose to reopen as charters or to shut down completely. Dee found the biggest differences between schools butting up against each side of the eligibility line; on one side were those whose baseline achievement was just low enough to make them eligible for SIG grants, and on the other side, almost close enough to touch, were schools whose scores were just high enough to make them ineligible.

In addition to receiving SIG funds, the schools that improved the most were almost exclusively those that implemented the turnaround model, the most severe change short of shutting down. Turnaround schools are required to replace the principal and at least half the teaching staff. Just 29 schools in California’s first cohort chose that model. Nationwide, 20 percent of SIG schools were turnarounds.

“This underscores the role of school culture and a break with a past of low expectations,” said Dee. “It could be that the turnover in staff was catalyzing that change.”

Still, Dee hadn’t expected the improvement to be so strong. He had followed the painfully slow process of awarding SIG grants in California and knew that many schools got a late start on implementation. “Schools were told they won the awards once they were in session or were about to start. Elements of their plans could not be implemented in the first year,” explained Dee. “That is another reason why results surprised me.”

California received more SIG funds than any other state from the U.S. Department of Education’s $4 billion program. In the first round, which started two years ago, the state received $416 million, about $1.5 million for each school in the three-year program. Since then, another $129 million has been awarded to 36 schools in cohort two.

Don’t overlook the buying potential of those funds in contributing to the API improvements, said Fred Tempes, director of the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, which is helping the State Department of Education with SIG implementation.

“When you have a lot of money then you can actually pay people to sit down and do the formative assessment exams, have coaches go in and look in the classrooms and make sure that people are actually following the reorganized curriculum.  So I suppose you could go faster,” said Tempes.

Plus, the first year is always the easiest to show improvement because a bunch of small tweaks can go a long way, Tempes said.  “You tighten up the curriculum, you institute some formative assessment that’s common to everybody, and it’s just kind of the low hanging fruit syndrome.”

What happens next may offer a clearer picture into the sustainability of the reforms. Dee calls it the “fade out” period that occurs after an initial big jump in scores, and intends to keep following California and other states to see what happens after SIG runs its three-year course.

Even Secretary Duncan tempered his delight – a bit – and urged patience.  “These data are still preliminary. Several years of data will be needed to demonstrate robust, long-term growth in student outcomes in SIG schools,” said Duncan in a news release.  “But Dee’s careful study belies the conventional wisdom that little can be done to significantly boost student achievement in low-performing schools.”

No action yet on NCLB waiver

An unconvinced State Board of Education took no action Wednesday on a request for a wavier from the No Child Left Behind law being pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Torlakson’s staff at the California Department of Education will now have another two months, until the State Board’s May meeting, to strengthen its waiver application in what in the end could prove a quixotic effort to persuade U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to make an exception for California.

Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have responded to demands that Duncan has set for two-year relief from NCLB’s biggest burdens and sanctions. The conditions include implementing the Common Core national standards, adopting a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals that uses student achievement as a factor, and creating improvement plans for turning around 15 percent of schools that either are the lowest achieving or have the biggest achievement gaps.

Torlakson’s view is that California has the legal right, as do other states, to a waiver but that California cannot afford some of the conditions – spending hundreds of millions of dollars in teacher training and materials for NCLB – while the timeline for other conditions, such as changing teacher evaluations this year, is too compressed or would be too contentious.

There’s no clear consensus on which route to take. Advocacy groups that include Education Trust-West and Children Now, plus the seven districts that led the state’s Race to the Top application, want to apply now for Duncan’s waiver, which includes some flexibility in Title I spending for low-income children. But the state PTA, the California Federation of Teachers, and most of two dozen district representatives who attended an information meeting last week on Torlakson’s and CDE’s general waiver concept indicated support for it, according to Fred Tempes, director of the Comprehensive School Assistance Program for WestEd, who conducted the meeting.

What all agree on is the need for immediate relief from the sanctions of NCLB, including its unattainable requirement that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014. Nearly all of the state’s schools could be designated as failures – with letters to parents notifying them of that – within two years.

“One hundred percent proficiency leaves every child behind,” Elliott Duchon, superintendent of Jurupa Unified in Riverside County, told the State Board. While he said he supported a general waiver, if that doesn’t work he urged  “keeping the door open to the Duncan waiver.”

Christine Swenson, head of  CDE’s Improvement & Accountability Division, acknowledged that the state has no idea whether federal officials would respond quickly enough to grant relief in 2012-13 if the state were to apply for a general waiver in May. The state could turn around and apply in September for a waiver under Duncan’s conditions, but that wouldn’t take effect until 2013-14.

Until last Friday’s meeting of invited representatives, CDE hadn’t presented its idea for a general waiver. In a summary of the meeting, Tempes wrote that there was agreement that the “CDE’s proposal was not bold enough in describing California’s position” and didn’t point out actions that California was already engaging in to prepare for Common Core.

As reported earlier this week, the Association of California School Administrators has offered specific ways it says could make a general waiver more palatable to Duncan, including a commitment to halve the number of students who aren’t proficient in math and English language arts in six years.

EdVoice, whose president, Bill Lucia, was at last Friday’s meeting, called for enforcing the long-ignored requirement under the current law on teacher and principal evaluations that results on standardized tests be a factor. (EdVoice  is suing Los Angeles Unified on this issue.) Others say that a general waiver offers California the opportunity to present a new accountability system that builds in student growth toward proficiency on tests (as opposed to 100 percent proficiency by a certain date) but also incorporates other metrics, including Gov. Brown’s suggestion in his State of the State address for school inspections.

“No Child Left Behind has done more to create unity about what is wrong with federal involvement in education,” said Board member Patricia Rucker. “But a waiver application needs to be strong and bold not just to get out from under NCLB” but also to present priorities for filling gaps in policy that the state has already acknowledged.

ACSA: Waiver too weak as is

The organization representing state school administrators says that if California wants its request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law to be taken seriously, then the State Board should give Secretary of Education Arne Duncan more of what he is demanding.

The Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) is suggesting several amendments that it says would strengthen a waiver request that Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s staff at the state Department of Education is recommending to the State Board. Chief among the changes would be a pledge to halve the number of students who are not proficient in math and English language arts over the next six years.

ACSA focused on the area of school accountability, a key part of the waiver proposals. “We believe however, the recommended proposal (by CDE) is too weak for serious consideration by federal officials,” ACSA President Alice Petrossian wrote in a letter last week to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. “The CDE proposal offers no real alternative to improving student achievement. While it may be appealing to have unfettered relief we believe it’s very unrealistic.” The State Board will vote on the waiver proposal on Wednesday.

Duncan is offering to give states flexibility from NCLB spending dictates and temporary relief from its severest penalties if they meet four broad conditions he has set. They include creating improvement plans for districts with the biggest achievement gaps and adopting statewide teacher and principal evaluation systems that take student results on standardized tests into consideration.

Eleven states already have received the two-year waivers, which take effect this fall, and 26 others applied by the second-round deadline last week. California still can apply for a third round by Sept. 1, but it would take effect in 2013-14.

From the start, Torlakson has viewed Duncan’s offer as stretching his authority to grant waivers from NCLB – a point highly debated in Washington. He called Duncan’s offer “not so much a waiver as a substitution for a new set of requirements and a new set of challenges.” And he has cited the multibillion-dollar costs of implementing Common Core standards, another condition for the waiver, and uncertainty that the Legislature would act on teacher evaluations this year as reasons the state can’t meet Duncan’s demands.

Instead, Torlakson is recommending that Duncan be asked to use his overall waiver authority to give California immediate, two-year relief: flexibility for districts to use $353 million in Title I dollars and suspension of sanctions against schools deemed failing under NCLB.

ACSA: Commit to making progress

Last fall, when Duncan first announced the waiver idea, ACSA’s board recommended that the state pursue it. ACSA still prefers that option, said Sherry Griffith, ACSA’s lobbyist, but it can support a request for a general NCLB waiver, as the state Department of Education is proposing, if it is strengthened.

One of district superintendents’ chief complaints about NCLB is that schools are labeled as failures under the federal measures even though they meet growth targets under the state’s performance index.

That wouldn’t change under CDE’s proposal. Although the sanctions would be suspended for two years, NCLB’s chief – and generally scorned – requirement, that all students be proficient in math and English language arts by 2014, would remain in effect. So over the next two years, hundreds, if not thousands, of additional schools would be given the scarlet “F” even if, for now, there would be no additional consequences.

Instead, ACSA is proposing that California agree to Duncan’s requirement that districts commit to reduce the proportion of remaining non-proficient students by 50 percent over six years. Consistent with that, the state would raise the target API score for schools and districts, now 800, to 838 (halfway to 875, signifying that all students, on average, would be at grade level).

ACSA is also suggesting that CDE do something else that Duncan is requiring: identify the 15 percent of schools that are either the worst-performing schools or those with the biggest achievement gaps and require that districts create plans to turn them around. “This commitment is in keeping with ACSA’s position that federal and state accountability should be focused on the lowest performing schools while higher performing schools are more autonomous,” Petrossian’s letter said.

CDE’s waiver plan doesn’t deal with the issue of teacher and principal evaluations. Its position is that it’s the Legislature’s prerogative to change current law.

ACSA isn’t suggesting that the state commit to mandating a new evaluation system that requires some use of student achievement as a measure. But, in a nod to Duncan, it does recommend that the state at least “commit to developing ‘voluntary’ state guidelines for teacher and principal evaluations” while the Legislature sorts through changes in the law.

“While not perfect, ACSA’s amendments make for a stronger, more viable plan,” Petrossian wrote. “We would rather be rejected making our best effort then go through an exercise in futility.”

Along with ACSA, superintendents of the seven districts that led the state’s application for Race to the Top money also have called for pursuing Duncan’s waiver. The districts, which include Los Angeles Unified, Fresno Unified, and Sacramento City Unified, have continued their work through a nonprofit, the California Office to Reform Education. Its executive director, Rick Miller, is a former deputy state superintendent.

“We support all ideas for needed flexibility for schools failing under No Child Left Behind,” Miller told me this week. “We’re in favor of a general waiver if we can get relief, but I have grave doubts whether it (CDE’s proposal before the State Board) will be acceptable to the feds.”

Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”

State delays next SIG awards

It took two-and-a-half months, but the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has approved California’s request to postpone the second group of school improvement grants by a year and carry over the $66 million in federal funding for the schools, known as Cohort 2.

The State Board of Education voted to seek the waiver at its July 13, 2011 meeting, after ED officials informed the California Department of Education (CDE) that none of the 58

Minutes of State Board meeting vote on requesting a SIG waiver.  Click to enlarge.
Minutes of State Board meeting vote on requesting a SIG waiver. Click to enlarge.

schools that applied earlier this year met the criteria for funding. CDE staff told the Board they needed more time to review the proposals with the schools, discuss what changes have to be made, select the grantees, and give them a chance to develop their plans so they’re ready to go on the first day of the fall 2012 school year.

Those 58 schools that completed the lengthy and time-consuming application weren’t thrilled to hear that if and when the CDE received the waiver, it planned on reopening the application process to include all 96 schools on the state’s persistently failing schools list. Trouble is, critics say some of them are no longer failing.

Old scores no longer settled

SIG is a competitive federal program under Title I, providing $3.5 billion in grants, over three years, to the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

Under the state criteria, California identified the lowest performing five percent of schools based on their API scores.  No district could have more than 10 percent of its schools qualify.  It also excluded all schools that raised their API scores by 50 points or more over five years – a low barrier for a very low-performing school.  The result was that the combination of factors led to some higher performing being included on the list and some lower-performing schools being removed.

Those measurements used to identify Cohort 2 schools go back nearly two years, said Doug McRae, a retired test publisher who’s been critical of the state’s SIG selection process since it began.

McRae proposes another formula that’s based both on API growth and on where the school actually ranks on the state’s API scale. He suggests if a school has met or exceeded its API growth targets for at least three years, and is no longer in Decile 1 on its current API ranking, it should be removed from the list and schools now in Decile 1 be added. He dropped the data into an Excel spreadsheet (click on + sign several times to enlarge) to show that, using his measures, only 20 of the 96 schools would still be eligible to apply for SIG.  A third of the 96 schools are no longer even in Decile 1.

“If they made what California expects them to make in growth over the last three years, my viewpoint is it’s kind of hard to call them persistently low achieving,” said McRae.

CDE officials say changing the rubric would be a more complicated sell to the U.S. Department of Education than a waiver to postpone the selection process and could require rewriting part of the state proposal.  “This is still Cohort 2, even though it was delayed by a few months to do the request for applications again,” said Julie Baltazar, the administrator in CDE’s accountability and improvement division.  “We’re not reapplying for the grant, we’re just amending the time line.”

Even though API status isn’t included in the evaluation, some districts have decided not to pursue funding for schools that have been improving without the federal money and its concomitant regulations.

Los Angeles Unified School District has nearly two dozen schools on the list, and spokesperson Donna Muncey said the district has been reviewing their recent growth with an eye toward reducing the field.  “We do not anticipating submitting an application for each of the 22 schools,” Muncey said.  “Some of the schools have been making good progress in their efforts to improve teaching, learning and student achievement.”

A hiccup in continued funding

There is a possibility that it could be a short-lived victory for Cohort 2 grantees.  As of now, the CDE only has money in hand for the first year of what’s supposed to be a three-year program.

Baltazar said politics and the economy could intervene by either reducing funds for the second and third years, or cutting them altogether.  “If the federal government didn’t give us any money, then it would end,” she said.

Cohort 1 schools are facing a different hurdle.  They’re in a holding pattern, waiting to learn when, or if, the state will release year two funds.  California has the money, but the State Board voted, at that same July 13th meeting, to make the money “contingent on schools implementing all required elements of the SIG program on the first day of school year 2011-12.”

At issue is what the federal government means by increased learning time.  CDE staff determine last summer that almost none of the school programs in Cohort 1 met the requirements.  The catch was that ED wasn’t exactly forthcoming with an explanation.  State education officials have called every school to discuss what they have to do to get their funds released.  So far, no money has changed hands.

“It’s been frustrating not having the money approved, but the district is going ahead as if it were,” said Sandra Gonering, interim SIG administrator for San Bernardino City Unified School District which received $57.6 million for 11 schools for three years.

Nevertheless, she said the district is confident they’ll get the funds.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, principal Eric Guthertz said the State Board’s protracted selection process for Cohort 1 turned out to be a plus.  He said the money came so late last year that they have enough carryover to get through the first part of this year.

Waiving a white flag on evaluations

The Obama Administration is acknowledging that school districts nationwide have failed to comply with a cornerstone proviso of its School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to every state actually inviting them to apply for waivers from the requirement that SIG transformation schools must develop teacher and principal evaluations that include student test scores as part of formula. The State Board of Education yesterday voted to accept the invitation.

“I cannot emphasize enough the key role of high-quality teacher and principal evaluation systems in supporting improved teaching and learning in all schools, and particularly in persistently lowest-achieving schools,” wrote Michael Yudin, Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.  “At the same time, I recognize that many districts are approaching this work for the first time. Without previous groundwork and investment, developing high-quality, comprehensive evaluation systems may take more time than initially contemplated under the SIG final requirements.”

The fact that the letter was sent to every state indicates that this is a sweeping problem, said Deborah Sigman, Deputy Superintendent of the California Department of Education. “When the federal government invites you, it’s a sign that it’s not just a California issue.”

In a draft letter responding to the U.S. Department of Education, Sigman, wrote that fewer than half the schools in the transformation model have met the timeline for establishing the teacher and principal evaluation system.

Transformation is one of four school improvement models under the SIG program.  It’s also the most popular because, on the surface, it seems to be the least draconian.  Transformation requires schools to replace the principal, increase learning time and develop the evaluation.  The other three models call for closing the school, restarting it as  a charter, or replacing the principal and at least half the staff.

California selected 91 schools to be in the first group to receive $416 million in SIG funds over three years.  They’re known as cohort 1.  Of those, 56 selected the transformation model.  Cohort 1 began during the 2010-11 academic year, so those schools are already a year behind in implementing the evaluation system.

Following Wednesday’s State Board of Education meeting, Sigman theorized that one reason for the delay is that teacher evaluations are part of the collective bargaining process, and that can take a while to work through.  Especially when the evaluation “should be capable of being used for decisions regarding, for example, retention, promotion, compensation, and rewards,” as Sigman wrote in the draft letter.

An interesting side note is that the waiver being offered by the Feds gives schools three years to phase in the evaluation system.  This current year is for development, next year the schools would run a pilot program, and in the 2013-14 school year, the full system would kick in.  The thing is, the SIG money for cohort 1 schools runs out next year.  Sigman explained that the “life of the money” isn’t analogous to the life of the reforms. Schools are supposed to develop sustainable programs.  She said it was “never intended to be implemented and then just go away.”

Test scores up – not enough for feds

California schools had their best year yet toward meeting their targets on the Academic Performance Index (API), the state’s ranking system. So it’s puzzling why thousands of schools could face sanctions for not meeting federal proficiency levels. Trying to make sense of the complicated formulas that cause this discrepancy is like being a kid in a Peanuts comic strip listening to the teacher say “Wah wah wah.”

In one corner, we have nine years of continued gains on the California Standards Tests, with a record 49 percent of the state’s schools meeting or exceeding the API target of 800, according to scores released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

“At school after school, and among every significant ethnic group, California’s students are performing better than ever,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, “even in the face of severe cuts to school funding.”

In the other corner are 913 schools about to join nearly 4,000 others already in Program Improvement status for failing to make large enough gains under the federal accountability system known as Adequate Yearly Progress. But here’s the rub: Many of the schools in Program Improvement and many of those succeeding in the state system are one and the same.

“We believe the No Child Left Behind policies are flawed,” said Torlakson during a call with journalists. “Despite 20- to 30-point gains, they [the schools] will be dubbed a failure; it doesn’t make sense.”

Torlakson sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week seeking a waiver from designating anymore schools as failing to meet AYP. [Read our article here.]

William Habermehl, Superintendent of the Orange County Office of Education gave his full support to that request.  On the same call with Torlakson, Habermehl said, “We need to let Washington know that they need to return the control of public education back to the states and the local levels and stop this nonsense.”

Different rulers and different measures

California’s Academic Performance Index is based on a scale of 200 to 1,000. The state has set 800 as the target for all schools to meet. According to the API results, 55

Source: California Department of Education (Click to enlarge)
Source: California Department of Education (Click to enlarge)

percent of California’s elementary schools hit 800, while 43 percent of middle schools did so. At the same time, just 35 percent of elementary schools and 18 percent of middle schools met the federal targets.

The reason the state and federal results are so far apart is that API rankings are a composite of all student scores in each school. Although the State Department of Education does disaggregate test scores by race, ethnicity, language, and other traits, those aren’t factored into the API score.

The federal government has a higher bar. Under No Child Left Behind, every one of those subgroups must reach the proficiency level on the standardized exams in order for the school to pass.

But high schools are a slightly different beast.

They reversed the trend with just 28 percent reaching 800 on the API and 41 percent achieving Adequate Yearly Progress.

“Not only is the measuring stick different, it’s measuring something different,” explained Rachel Perry, director of assessment and accountability for the California Department of Education.

The API for high schools is a combination of California’s standards-based test scores and results of the California High School Exit Exam.  But Adequate Yearly Progress is based just on exit exam scores, and, as we reported here last week, passing rates are increasing.

Here come the caveats

The state’s information guide on Adequate Yearly Progress runs 81 pages.  Half-way through, on page 41, is the section on Safe Harbor.  It would take an entire article to describe all the conditions of Safe Harbor – and we plan to do that very soon – but the gist of it is that it gives schools a second chance to reach the NCLB pass level if subgroups have shown improvement on test scores.

Another point of possible distortion is the increasing number of special needs students taking California’s alternative test, the California Modified Assessments.  One of our regular Op-Ed contributors has a column on that today.

Then there’s the issue of what it means when a school reaches 800 on the API scale.  The state Department of Education puts so much stock on the number that it’s taken

Source:  California Department of Education. (Click to enlarge)
Source: California Department of Education. (Click to enlarge)

on a magical aura of success.  But that’s not the case.  As the chart on the right shows, each level, from far below basic to advanced, is assigned a numeric value.   So a score of 800 doesn’t indicate that all the students in a school are proficient or better, just a little over half of them.

“Your API score doesn’t necessarily give you information about a subject area or grade level,” said Perry.  “That’s part of the difficulty of the index. But it’s part of the beauty, too, because you know students are doing better.”

Still waiting for fix for SIG grants

The first day of school is just over two weeks away in San Francisco Unified School District and they still don’t know whether they’ll get their second year of funding under the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program.  That’s the program that awards up to $2 million per year to the lowest-achieving, highest-poverty schools.

Nine of the district’s ten SIG schools were cited by the State Department of Education for not meeting all the requirements for renewal of their grants. (The tenth SIG school was shut down). Two weeks ago, the State Board of Education (SBE) voted not to distribute year 2 grants to schools that aren’t in full compliance. The question is, compliance with what?

“We are in conversation with the state to clarify what we can do about corrective action,” said Gentle Blythe, the district’s communication director. “In most cases it was a question of not being clear on what the state was expecting.”

San Francisco is hardly alone in scratching its head. “I’m communicating with other school districts and none of them has received information on anything,” said Nader Delnavaz, who oversees SIG grants in Los Angeles Unified School District.

That pretty much sums up what the state is saying about the U.S. Department of Education (ED). “The standards that are emerging from Washington are a little difficult to understand,” said Fred Tempes, in what many schools would consider more than a bit of an understatement. Tempes directs WestEd’s California Comprehensive Assistance Center, which has a contract with the State Department of Education to help with implementation and monitoring of SIG grants.

A moving target

From "Guidance on School Improvement Grants" June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education (click image to enlarge)
From "Guidance on School Improvement Grants" June 29, 2010, U.S. Department of Education (click image to enlarge)

At the heart of the confusion is what the U.S. Department of Education (ED) means by increased learning time. Schools that opted for the transformation* or turnaround** reform models in the SIG program (85 of the 90 in California), are required to provide additional instruction in core subjects. Sounds simple enough. But in a variation of an adage, if something seems too simple, it probably isn’t.

San Francisco thought it meant extra instructional time for students who scored below or far below basic on the California standards tests. Nope, it must be for all students. Other districts proposed Saturday school and summer school. Nope, it has to be built into the regular academic year calendar. Oakland Unified’s SIG schools extended the day to 5 o’clock three days a week and 4 o’clock one day a week, and contracted with Citizen Schools to provide academic and homework support, tutoring and an apprenticeship program. Nope, not quite right according to the state.

Kilian Betlach, assistant principal of Elmhurst Community Prep Middle School in Oakland, says he was surprised to be listed as out of compliance, especially since his school’s approved SIG application was very specific about how they planned to meet the increased learning time.


“What’s unclear to me is where is that decision coming from? Is it that the state received feedback from the federal government that they want to see something different? Is it that the state gained greater clarity over this?” wondered Betlach.

That’s one of the key issues being raised by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) in a two-page memo sent Wednesday to the State Department of Education. “We’re questioning the ability to implement what appears to be this moving-target definition of extended learning time,” said Sherry Griffith, ACSA’s legislative advocate.

Waiting on ED

State Department of Education officials share the frustration.  They’ve been trying to pin down ED on a working definition of extended time since before the state board meeting two weeks ago.

“They are very eager to get this answer and get it out to districts; they completely understand the urgency and they’re working on it as best they can,” said Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education.

The latest back and forth between the state and U.S. departments of education has focused on the nitty-gritty details and nuances.  California’s education code makes it difficult to implement some of the federal requirements, said WestEd’s Tempes.  There are limitations to the kind of support that paraprofessionals can provide, and extending the day for credentialed teachers requires collective bargaining.

There’s also the question of what’s meant by extended learning time: 30 minutes a day? 60 minutes? Two hours?  Federal education officials say the answer should be research based and site studies indicating a minimum of 300 hours a school year, but the findings aren’t consistent. “What the research says is there is no right amount of time, it depends on how you use the time,” said Tempes.

At a meeting he attended yesterday morning with state education officials, Tempes said it appeared that an agreement with ED was near – possibly even by the afternoon.  There was no word from Washington, however, so now they’re hoping for something today or tomorrow – hope being the operative word.

* Transformation Model: The LEA implements a series of required school improvement strategies, including replacing the principal who led the school prior to implementation of the transformation model, and increasing instructional time.

** Turnaround Model: The school district or charter school (LEA) undertakes a series of major school improvement actions, including replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff; adopting a new governance structure; and implementing an instructional program that is research‐based and vertically aligned from one grade to the next, as well as aligned with California’s adopted content standards.

(descriptions from EdSource and Strategic Education Services)

Fuzzy SIG process upsets schools

The 58 schools expecting to learn if they’ll receive up to $2 million in School Improvement Grants (SIGs) for the fall term may have to wait until next spring for an answer. They may also have to reapply for the program, or just rework their current proposals. Either way, it’s possible the requirements will be more extensive. No one seems to know for sure what’s going on, and they’re hoping for answers when the State Board of Education (SBE) meets tomorrow in Sacramento.

The State Board has three items on its agenda dealing with the SIG program. The most contentious is whether to ask the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for a one-year waiver in allocating money to the schools in Cohort II, those that didn’t make the cut a year ago and are seeking funds for the 2011-12 academic year.

The SBE also wants permission to  roll over the funds and combine them with the 2012-13 SIG allocation. California has $69 million in SIG money for the upcoming school year.

Julie Baltazar, the administrator in State Department of Education’s accountability and improvement division, said that a waiver would give the state time to help Cohort II schools revise their applications, and give Cohort I schools time to implement changes based on clarifications made by ED since the program started.

School and district officials say the changes aren’t simple explanations; they’re entirely new requirements that weren’t in the initial application guidelines.

“We’re not supporting the request for a waiver” said Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA). Following a conference call with superintendents and principals on Monday afternoon, Griffith said they want the SBE to put several options on the table. “Our position will be to provide conditional approval to current applicants who meet all of the criteria they were told.”

In the meantime, she said the state should work with the U.S. Department of Education to reach an understanding on some of the outstanding problems.

Federal monitoring reveals poor compliance

The big push for a waiver began after ED sent a 21-page letter and report to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, with results of a monitoring team’s visit to three SIG schools in California. The team went to San Gorgonio High School in the San Bernardino Unified School District, Gompers Middle School in Los Angeles Unified School District, and Everett Middle School in San Francisco Unified. Each school represented one of the school improvement models (with the exception of school closure): transformation (San Gorgonio), restart (Gompers), and turnaround (Everett).

Based on conversations with school and district officials, the ED team identified seven areas where the state was out of compliance. The problems addressed are both broad and specific to individual schools, and date back to the start of the program in California, which was marked by accusations that the selection process was sloppy (Read TOP-Ed’s reports here and here).

  1. The State Board of Education did not ensure that its application process was carried out consistent with its approved SIG application.
  2. The CDE did not ensure that award amounts were made consistent with the SIG requirements.
  3. The CDE did not ensure that schools implementing the turnaround model rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff.
  4. The CDE did not ensure that SFUSD replaced the principal in a school implementing the turnaround model.
  5. The CDE did not ensure that SFUSD implemented extended time in Everett Middle School, as required for the turnaround model.
  6. It’s not clear how a summer program planned for some students in SFUSD will contribute to turning around the schools involved.
  7. The CDE is not monitoring SIG implementation as outlined in its approved application.

Even though item 5 refers to just one of the schools visited, the issue of extended time could have sweeping impact and is causing extreme anxiety for Cohort II schools.

Changing the rules midstream

Craig Wheaton said he learned just two weeks ago, during a phone conference with the CDE and all Cohort II applicants, that SIG schools must provide extended learning for all students, whether they’re working on grade level or not, and in all subjects, including enrichment courses. At least, that’s what he thinks the CDE is requiring. Wheaton is superintendent of Visalia Unified School District, which has one school applying for a Cohort II award.

“They had no criteria of what that meant, how much extended time would be acceptable,” said Wheaton. When superintendents asked for specifics, the answers were “very vague because none of that was in the application process. Their rules have changed.” There were several people from CDE on the call and Wheaton said a couple of times when a question stumped them “they huddled up and came back to the phone to say, ‘We don’t really know, we’ll have to find out.'”

But what really bothers Wheaton is that after all the effort put into preparing application, the district may have to start all over again. Visalia went so far as to change principals and work out a voluntary transfer program with the union’s consent to move two-thirds of the teachers into other schools in order to meet the requirements for the turnaround model.

ACSA’s Griffith said either the CDE failed to get the full details about extended learning and tell the districts, or federal education officials are coming up with new rules. Wherever the buck stops, the vagaries of the process are creating tremendous apprehension and some superintendents and principals are reconsidering whether they even want to remain in the competition.

“It’s like a Chinese water torture kind of feeling,” said Griffith. “The next problem just sort of arises.”

NCLB waivers may benefit state

California could benefit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s ultimatum to grant states waivers from controversial parts of No Child Left Behind if Congress doesn’t act on reauthorization before the next school year starts.

During a telephone call with reporters Monday afternoon, Duncan said the Department of Education is working on a package of reforms he calls “Plan B,” which would give states flexibility from some requirements of NCLB, principally the mandate that every student be proficient in English and math by 2014. (Read the Secretary’s statement here). In return, states would have to commit to key reforms similar to those emphasized in Race to the Top and the blueprint for reauthorization – teacher accountability, higher standards, and turning around the lowest performing schools .

“As it exists now, NCLB is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents, teachers, and principals,” said Duncan. Unless the law’s changed, an overwhelming number of schools in the country may soon be mislabeled as failing. This will trigger impractical and ineffective sanctions.”

As of 2010-2011, nearly 1,300 California schools were in year 5 of program improvement (PI), according to a recent report by EdSource. Duncan has said that unless the 100 percent proficiency standard is eased, 82 percent of all schools in the country will be in PI status.

The waivers aren’t automatic, but California stands a decent chance of getting one, said Rick Miller, a principal in Capitol Impact, which runs training programs on education policy for legislative staff. “Even though the state didn’t win a Race to the Top grant, we were a finalist in round two. We were doing growth models before growth models were cool,” said Miller. “And given that we’ve adopted Common Core, given that we’re part of an assessment consortium (SMARTER Balanced), and given that we have said that we’re willing to use growth as part of an accountability model, I think that California should be in serious consideration for a waiver.”

NCLB was the cornerstone of President George W. Bush’s education policy when he signed it in 2002. It’s been up for reauthorization since 2007 without any success. President Obama wants it overhauled before the end of the current Congressional session, but the effort seems to have stalled. Sec. Duncan said he’s seen some movement in recent weeks and believes that reaching a bipartisan agreement “remains the best way to create a comprehensive solution to the problems created by NCLB.” Nevertheless, he said he’s not going to wait around to see what happens.

“If we start to move forward and then Congress revs up steam and builds momentum we can back off at any time,” said Duncan. “The only option I’m not comfortable with is doing nothing.”